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Late Medieval Panel Paintings II: Materials, Methods, Meanings


“Where the literature of foreign nations and of past cultures is accessible only across the barrier of language,” Meyer Schapiro wrote, “the works of painting, sculpture, and architecture may be enjoyed directly through the eyes and the humanity of their makers experienced in the expressiveness of forms.”1 How it is possible to respond directly to this magnificent exhibition of twenty-four 15th- and 16th-century paintings, one painted frame, two crucifixes, one sculpture, one brass chandelier and tapestry made in Spain, the Southern Netherlands, France, Germany and also Crete, Switzerland and Venice—and thus experience the humanity of their makers? Nowadays we have a very narrowly selective focus on the European Old Masters. But since none of the artists in this show are known outside the world of specialist scholars, how can their art be made accessible to modern day viewers?

Nicolás Solana, The Arrest of Christ, Christ before Pilate and The Flagellation (c. 1420 – 1430). Oil on softwood panel with original applied and gilded frame. 31 1/2 × 68 1/3 inches. including frame.

A beautiful vision of the late Medieval world is presented here. With intense color, the figures cluster together in crowded scenes. There is immense life in every square centimeter of these very crisp, finely detailed pictures, which are filled with rich fabrics and luxurious ornamented interiors. Presenting the story of Jesus Christ’s childhood, preaching, and death, they show contemporary people only in the background as bystanders. There are many stunning details. In Juan Nuñez’s, The Crucifixion (c. 1480 – 1500) in the foreground is a large-eyed horse, whose bridle is richly decorated. In The Grifo Master’s Saints George and Benedict (c. 1520 – 1525) the reflective metallic armor of Saint George is set alongside color-absorbent fabrics, and almost hidden behind the saint is the oddly shaped dragon he has slain. In the central panel of the Master of 1499’s The Virgin and Child, the Nativity and a kneeling donor accompanied by standing Saints (c. 1500) the Virgin, who sits in a chapel-like space, is accompanied by five angels, each with a robe of a different color. The naïveté of these pictures is enchanting, as if the artists’ presentation of a Catholic worldview were unclouded by any doubt.

Some of the subjects are not easy to identify. In a picture identified as the Diptych of the Nativity and Adoration of the Magi with Charlotte of Savoy and Saint Francis attending (c. 1472 – 1473), the interior shows Nativity and Adoration of the Magi, with the richly dressed Queen Charlotte of Savoy, shown in profile, kneeling opposite the Virgin; and on the exterior Arms of Charlotte of Savoy with entwined initials L and C identifies this royal figure, mother of a future king of France, Charles VIII, and Saint Francis is in the background. Pere Lembri’s The Raising of Tabitha (c. 1410 – 1415) shows a rarely depicted scene, a miracle performed by Saint Peter. A few of the saints depicted are relatively obscure—The Master of Bayerisch St. Wolfgang’s Saint Damian and Saint Ottila (c. 1480) and the Ulm Master’s Saints Elizabeth and Clare (c. 1490 – 1500), for example. And Sigmund Gleismüller’s The Ascension of Christ (c. 1485 – 1490) shows a surprising image, Christ ascending with only his feet visible.

There are also many figures that are easy to identify. The Austrian Master’s The Adoration of the Magi (c. 1490 – 1510) sets that familiar scene in a stone stable with thatched roof; and the Master of Miraflores’s The Virgin and Child (c. 1490) depicts the Virgin in front of a distant urban landscape and pale blue heavens. The narrative in Alejo Fernández’s The Arrest of Christ (c. 1500 – 1510) does require some unpacking. Christ, in a gold trimmed robe, embraced by a very evil-looking Judas, holds in his extended right hand the ear of Malchus, who lies prostrate in the foreground with a bloodied cheek. The lantern that this servant has dropped is at bottom center, with its snuffed candle still smoking. In a moment Christ will tell Peter, who is at the extreme left, to put away his sword and then reattach Malchus’s ear. In the background there are two small images of prior scenes: at the upper left, Christ with three sleeping apostles before his arrest; in the upper right, Peter and two other apostles in the high priest’s house.

This is not a large show, but there is a lot to look at. Although these artists come from a wide geographic range of Western-European countries, there is a surprising stylistic unity to their art. They all knit together their compositions, as if their richly decorated pictures were ornamented carpets. We see this in Nicolás Solana’s The Arrest of Christ, Christ before Pilate and the flagellation (c. 1420 – 1430), in which an array of figures in brightly colored garments act out the sacred drama in shallow, richly ornamented spaces. In the High Renaissance, starting around 1480, Leonardo and Raphael opened up the picture, deepening the illusionistic space between the depicted figures, giving them room to breathe. This dramatic transformation and the destruction of the Medieval Catholic world, which soon comes about, makes the visual culture expressed in these charming late Medieval panels very distant indeed.


  1. Meyer Schapiro, “The Fine Arts and Mankind.” Reprinted in Schapiro, Worldview in Painting—Art and Society. Selected Papers. (New York: George Braziller,  1999).


David Carrier

David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2016

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